Snapchat pivots from privacy to publicity

It has a sexting image and a privacy problem, but can the app kill two birds with one stone?

Snapchat, the mobile phone app intended for "view once" picture messaging, has developed into an $860 million company which boasts of processing approximately 200 million images per day since its creation in 2011 by a group of Stanford University students. However, recent developments mean the Snapchat team might have to slightly alter their tactics (if they can fit it in between Winklevoss twin-style lawsuits).

Originally marketed as a method of picture communication which leaves no virtual footprint, Snapchat was promoted on the basis that "snaps" vanished once viewed. The unsurprising (and perhaps intentional) consequence is that it has been widely viewed as a mechanism for teenage "sexting". 

But whereas it was initially claimed that “snaps disappear” once opened, it turns out that all the photos taken using Snapchat are cached deep in users’ Android mobile phones: Richard Hickman, a forensic researcher, developed software that enables Snapchat images to be restored. So now, in addition to every user’s pre-existing ability to screenshot snaps (the app gives the sender a warning if that's happened, but is powerless to prevent it), it appears Snapchat images are barely more secure than any of the other tracks we leave whilst living our online lives. Given second-hand sales of mobile devices, using Snapchat under the false pretence that photos are immediately deleted could have serious consequences, as images intended to be private are handed over to unknown third parties. 

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Snapchat’s supposedly “deceptive business practices”. “Despite promising to its users that photos and videos sent via Snapchat will ‘disappear forever’,” the report stated, “Snapchat photos and videos remain available to others even after users are informed that the photos and videos have been deleted.” The EPIC complaint also detailed Snapchat’s FAQ page as stating, “Question: “Is there any way to view an image after the time has expired? Answer: No, snaps disappear after the timer runs out.”

The Snapchat team responded to protests by attempting to retract the idea that Snapchat photos are evanescent: they released a blog post which stated, “If you've ever tried to recover lost data after accidentally deleting a drive…you might know that with the right forensic tools, it's sometimes possible to retrieve data after it has been deleted. So…keep that in mind before putting any state secrets in your ‘selfies’." 

As a result of users’ gradual realisation that snaps are more permanent than initially thought, Snapchat appears to have modified its business strategy and pivoted from secrecy to sociability. For example, the recent modifications to the screenshot process for iOS 7 models mean that a notification is no longer sent at all when the recipient of a snap has taken a screenshot of an image, leaving senders unaware of who is keeping their images handy for a second-look. Unless Snapchat updates its coding to reverse this change, this seems to reinforce the idea that a pivot has occurred.

It appears, however, that Snapchat is not particularly concerned by this progression. Never content with being labelled the sexting app, the Snapchat team, which currently consists of just five people, two of whom are the co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, are facing the issue of Snapchat’s dwindling ability to guarantee secure photo-messaging by shifting the spotlight to SnapChat’s potential to foster friendships. Spiegel recently commented, “We allow the Snapchat community to enforce its own norms. If you want to play a mean joke, we can’t stop you. But it’s important to look at how people build and maintain friendships. They would gain nothing in friendship by saving an ugly photo and posting it.”

Through the addition of the points system (where points are gained for numbers of snaps sent) and the "Best Friends" feature (which abandons privacy altogether in allowing users to see who their friends Snapchat the most), the Snapchat team have decidedly distanced themselves from their original concept. Though undeniably Snapchat remains a form of “disposable media” when compared with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, these changes illustrate just how difficult it is to truly erase our virtual lives and how SnapChat is gradually adapting to accept that.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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